Civil Society

Structural change must be at the heart of fighting systemic racism

A protestor holds up a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the White House as protestors face off with police along Lafayette Park after Washington Metropolitan Police officers pushed back racial inequality demonstrators around Washington's Black Lives Matter Plaza to re-open surrounding streets for the resumption of vehicle traffic in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 22, 2020.

Gisele Yitamben: 'We need to tell the stories that make visible the things we value' Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Gisele Yitamben
Founder and President, Association pour le Soutien et l'Appui à la Femme Entrepreneur (ASAFE)
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Systemic Racism

  • Systemic racism has its roots in extractive capitalism in Africa.
  • Black people need to start telling their stories themselves.
  • When we really know each other, recognize our contribution to a common history, and see that all solutions hold value, we may start to shift systems.

When Barack Obama was elected president of the US in 2008, many optimistically thought that racism in that country was on the decline, and that the global trend was shifting towards less discrimination.

For the first time in the country’s history, a Black man was occupying the White House—the official residence and office of the US president, which was built by slaves.

But it was perhaps naive to think that the US and the world at large would become colourblind the moment Obama took office. In 2014, during his second term, Obama himself noted that racism and racial bias are “deeply rooted” and have caused untold suffering throughout the world. And indeed, the current wave of global protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd bear this out.

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Addressing the root causes of systemic racism and bias

As a Black woman in Africa, I am living the reality that the “deep roots” of systemic racism lie in extractive capitalism on this continent. Slavery, the colonization of Africa and the economic exploitation that continues today, are driven by the need for cheap labour and raw materials seemingly at any cost, using obnoxious cooperative accords inherited from the colonial era. Ultimately, it is greed that has led to the systematic devaluation of Africans. For centuries, Africans have been discounted and devalued as the colonizers sought to maximize profits and focused on their own needs and “happiness”. This mindset continues to drive racist attitudes today.

Current approaches to addressing racism have failed for the most part because they have addressed the symptoms but not the root causes. We see this when we consider that, while slavery and colonialism were officially abolished, the system of oppression merely transitioned into central banks serving slave owners, but not former slaves, and police forces serving elected officials rather than ordinary citizens.

If we want to end systemic racism we need to get beneath the surface and understand what’s really going on, especially on an unconscious level. And to do this, we need to go beyond campaigns, slogans and figureheads – important as these are – and rewrite the real stories of each race and its contribution to humanity.


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Writing history as it happened

It has always been curious to me that the “black pharaohs” of Egypt – powerful Kushite leaders that ruled all of Egypt from Nubia to the Mediterranean Sea from about 760 BC to 650 BC – have been largely forgotten by history. This dynasty of leaders embarked on an ambitious building program up and down the Nile, including the construction of pyramids, under which their kings are buried. Yet mention pyramids to the average person, and they will think of those in Cairo first – unaware that such structures exist further down the Nile in modern-day Sudan.

In confronting racial stereotypes, we need to tell the story as it happened and show how the development of the world is made of interwoven efforts; that will rebuild respect. There’s a reason why Black Lives Matter activists are targeting statues of colonial and slave oppressors – because they recognize that there is power in these stories and symbols that have kept people trapped for centuries. As David Adjaye, lead designer of the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington DC, writes, there is a direct relationship between symbols and systems –and people are starting to seek complex truths in new symbols that don’t ignore the losers or the forgotten underbelly of history.

For many years, the narratives about Africa have been about misrule, corruption, poverty and hunger, yet it remains one of the richest continents in terms of mineral wealth and agricultural potential – despite 500 years of exploitation. This is not to discount the reality of poor governance and corruption, which I must stress is being encouraged and promoted by developed countries within the framework of the exploitation strategy. Many people lose their lives each year trying to cross dangerous waters into Europe in search of a better life largely because of these factors. But there are positive stories we can tell, too.

Africa needs to take the lead in telling her stories. The resulting new perception will be positively shaped if truth is told. It is not about begging to be accepted. We need to tell the stories that make visible the things we value, the beauty and the power that have been written out of history.


Driving systems change at the local level

By telling real Africa’s stories – both the victories and the downfalls – and making Black history more visible, we can start the work of unravelling the systems that hold racism and oppression in place, but this alone will not be enough. Systemic racism has also to be tackled at structural, institutional and political levels. A system that has historically devalued a whole group of people is by definition exclusionary; we need to therefore redesign systems that value inclusiveness. In this, solutions cannot be imposed from outside. Those that need change most must be involved in bringing it about.

The COVID-19 pandemic may, ironically, be showing us a way here. Working with social entrepreneurs in remote areas of Cameroon, lockdown measures have effectively cut us off from our usual means of trade. Incomes have collapsed, and we have been forced to create new systems to ensure that people can attend to their basic needs. This has included creating a local currency to allow people to trade during this time and setting up new localized trade routes. While driven in this instance by necessity, there is power in this approach in that it starts with what is under the control of the beneficiaries and what is valued and needed, and then builds around that.

Going forward, we can seek to apply this principle of localization more broadly. When we start to respect others and see that their solutions also hold value, we can start to shift systems.


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I believe social entrepreneurs will have a central role to play in this regard by driving localized solutions; for example, by creating access to affordable finance for initiatives that can improve livelihoods for future generations of Africans. In this way we can build a new narrative for the continent and create systems that value people, and their happiness and wellbeing, over profits.

We are at a historic moment in the fight against systemic racism. There is a wider moral recognition that some things in our society are fundamentally wrong and a broader understanding of the need to address the root causes of these ills. We have an opportunity to uproot systemic racism – and that starts with rediscovering what has been forgotten and revaluing what has been systematically devalued.

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